As a psychotherapist, I’ve had a lot of clients, friends and family asking me for my advice on what’s the most important thing to do for their mental health during this pandemic. Initially, it felt like a pretty loaded question, as what each individual needs during this time is going to be very different. I wanted to share some of my thoughts with those of you who may need to hear this. If it’s not your thing, or you find it unhelpful – My thoughts are still with you and I hope you’re able to find words elsewhere that sit with you and bring you comfort.
Going through this day to day, I’ve noticed myself sitting with a very uneasy, unsettled feeling. A feeling of emotional and physical exhaustion, feelings of anger and frustration, sadness, fear and the list goes on and sometimes changes by the moment.
I’m sure a lot of people are hearing things like “It’s most important to keep a schedule”, “Use this time to learn a new skill” or “All this extra time will allow you to get those tasks done you’ve been putting off”.
Let’s be real for a moment here.
While, I’m sure that there are some people that will be able to dive into new tasks as a form of distraction to cope with this major life change, the majority of us are sifting through a shit storm of emotions and trying to figure out what the heck is going on, while adjusting to a whole new world.
This all happened so quickly. We have not had adequate time to process our emotions.
So, what I realized a few days ago, that I wanted to share – What we are experiencing collectively as a society is GRIEF.
To answer the question from before: The most important thing to do initially to benefit your mental health is to allow this all to sink in. GRIEF has crept itself into your life overnight.
Normally, we think of grief on a larger scale – a loss of a loved one, a traumatic accident or illness, or other major life loss. We don’t stop to consider or validate the smaller losses we experience regularly. And we are certainly not allowing ourselves to validate the seemingly smaller losses now.
That uneasy, confused, unsettled feeling you’re having. It’s your emotions seeking your attention. Emotions want to be heard – they want to know that you’re listening to them and they want to know that it’s okay for them to be present with you.
To explain to clients, I sometimes compare it to a small child seeking their mother’s attention. At first, it’s a small “mommy” you hear, then maybe it gets a little louder the next time, and then if they are not feeling heard, it turns into a scream of “mommy, mommy, mommy” and a tugging on the pant leg. Until the child is unconsolable.
Emotions are similar – they show up mildly at first, looking to be acknowledged. However, as we continue to ignore them, or push them away, they begin to act out. This is when we start to see our behavior shift to anxiety attacks, mood swings, anger outbursts, symptoms of depression perhaps.
Ok, so what do we do>?
First, the most important thing is to acknowledge what you’re feeling. A simple statement out loud or written down such as I am feeling blank, because of blank. And it’s okay.… It sounds really simple, but acknowledgment and validation can be extremely powerful in emotional healing.
Second, don’t brush off the small stuff. Grief is all around you. Just because there are many people out there who may be suffering differently or worse than you, should not take away from your own experience of loss. What I am saying also is not meant to take away from the gravity of the situation as a whole. There is extreme loss in the world right now, right next door and across the globe. My intention, however, on a smaller, individual scale is to help guide you a bit to process your own personal experience.
Allow yourself to make a list of the seemingly small losses that you have been brushing off because “there are people dying,” “there are people who are living on the streets” or “there are children right now who don’t have anything to eat”. Yes, those things are very true. And Yes, as a collective society, we should be aware of these large scale problems and making a difference where we can. However, I will say it again – These things DO NOT take away from your own personal experience of loss. It is all relative, and the comparison game will only stifle your own emotions, resulting in furthering your discomfort.
In the hopes of helping to set an example to give yourself permission to process, I am going to be vulnerable and share some of the seemingly small things I am allowing myself to acknowledge and grieve:
- Missing my weekly coffee dates with my best friend
- Not Seeing my clients and fellow Clinician’s face to face in the office
- Going to the gym to swim in the pool
- Being unsure when it will be safe for me to visit my mother in Florida again
- Not Seeing my own therapist face to face
- The unknown of how this may affect me and my husband as small business owners
- Being able to schedule a massage – oh how I could really use a massage with all this tension…
I could also now follow this up with a bunch of reasons to justify why those things are silly or not a big deal in the grand scheme of the world crisis, or even compared to what other people right here in my community may be experiencing – but, I know that will not help change the way I am feeling.
I challenge you to sit down and write out your own list. Take some time to let it all sink in.
Let the emotions flow as they need to, ask for help if you need to, ask for space from your family if you need to, and most importantly… when it all gets to feel like too much:
Give yourself some comfort and reassurance that you are doing the best you can – there is no right or wrong way to process or handle your own situation. I’m sure you, like me, are giving out your energy left and right to help support others. Take a moment to also support yourself. You are grieving the loss of what life was and all of the little things day to day that you are missing.
You are okay.
We are strong and will come out stronger on the other side of this.
If you need support, we’re here for you. Therapy is for everyone and an important way to practice self-care.
Sending my love and energy to those who need it.
Jessica C. Sullivan, LCSW
Founder & CEO – Nourish Your Mind